A tense debate in Parliament last night as Labour accused National of selling out to its political backers over the Health and Safety in Employment Bill.
The Bill has been a political minefield – first within the National Party and now, among the parties in the House.
Last night Labour was claiming that changes to the Bill had been made at the behest of the Nelson fishing and meat processing company owned by the Talley brothers.
National recently knighted Sir Peter Talley and the company is known for its hostility to trade unions.
But the debate last night only took place after some last minute negotiating with United Future Leader Peter Dunne to get his support for it.
At the heat of the debate is a change to a proposal to make the election of a Health and Safety representative mandatory in every workplace.
““The Bill was not sufficiently robust in that regard and it would have been difficult for me to support it further without additional changes to strengthen the provisions regarding high risk industries,” he said.
The Transport and Industrial relations Select Committee made the provision optional for all workplaces with less than 20 workers except where the workplace is in a high risk industry.
Mr Dunne persuaded Workplace Relations Minister Michael Woodhouse to further define a high risk workplace in the Bill as:
- Any industry that carries the risk of a catastrophic event;
- Any industry that has had a fatality rate greater than 25 per 100,000 workers since 2008;
- Any industry that has had a serious injury rate of more than 25 per 1,000 workers since 2008.
This includes forestry, mining and construction but controversially leaves out farming.
Federated Farmers were heavily opposed to the original proposal and so were rural delegates at National’s recent party conference.
One said if National persisted with its approach to workplace safety it would pay at the polls at the Moroney said that agriculture killed more people in New Zealand than any other workplace.
Ms Moroney said the original Bill provided that all workers had the option of asking for a health and safety rep.
But she said National had changed that because it listened to its backers.
“That party opposite (National) listened to the likes of Talleys (who own AFFCO) who came along with their bad health and safety records,” she said.
She said Talleys also claimed that workers would demand health and safety reps because they had a hidden agenda.
“There was some other secret agenda, some unnamed agenda that Talleys wouldn’t name.
“They convinced the National Party members that that was going to ruin workplace health and safety and ruin the workplace.”
In fact there is a concern among sections of the National Party that mandatory elections for health and safety reps would be a backdoor method for unions to get back on sites where they had no members.
Mr Woodhouse however said a “one size fits a’’ cookie cutter model was not the way to get better a health and safety participation and culture in businesses.
“I have tried very hard in the data that I have explored to find a co-relation between the presence of a health and safety rep in a workplace and the incidence of serious injury and death in the workplace,” he said.
“And I cannot.”
He said he wasn’t saying health and safety representatives weren’t important.
“But what that says to me is that there are many other factors at play in determining whether practical steps are being taken in a workplace to keep people safe and whether all workers are participating that health and safety process.”
Mr Woodhouse is having to walk a difficult line on this Bill. On the one hand many of his own provincial back bench colleagues are suspicious of it and of WorkPlace NZ who will implement it while on the other the ghosts of those killed at Pike River hag over Parliament as it considers the legislation.